Why Can’t Students Opt-Out of Data Collection in Higher Ed?

You know, for all the talk from EdTech vendors about being student centred (and let’s face it, LMS’s and most of the other products are not student centred) and all the focus on data collection from student activity – why don’t products have an easy opt-out (being student centred and all that) to not allow data to be collected?

What makes matters worse in many ways is that the data collection is hidden from student’s view. For instance, in many LMS’s they track time spent on content items or files uploaded. This tracking is never made explicit to the student unless they go and dig into their own data. And doing that is incredibly difficult and you don’t get a complete picture of what is being collected. If I was a more conspiratorial minded person, I’d suggest that it was done on purpose to make it hard to understand the amount of total surveillance that is accessible by a “teacher” or “administrator”. I’m not. I honestly believe that the total surveillance of students in the LMS is really about feature creep, where one request turned into more requests for more information. LMS’s on the other hand want to keep their customers happy, so why not share what information they have with their clients, after all it’s their data isn’t it?

Actually, it’s not. It’s not the client’s data. It’s the individual’s data. To argue otherwise is to claim that what someone does is not their own – it reduces agency to a hilariously outdated and illogical idea.

The individual, human, user should be allowed to share or not share this data, with teachers, with institutions or with external companies that host that data in an agreement with an institution that probably was signed without them even knowing it. There’s an element of data as a human right that we should be thinking about. As an administrator I have a policy I have to adhere to, and a personal set of ethics that frankly are more important to me (and more stringent) than the obscurely written-in-legalese policy. An unscrupulous, or outright negligent LMS administrator would mean that all bets would be off. They could do things in the LMS that no one, except another administrator, could track. Even then, the other administrator would have to know enough to be able to look at all the hundreds of different changelogs, scattered across different tools, across different courses and do essentially a forensic search that could take a good long time to undo any damage. That lack of checks and balances (a turn of phrase that appears purposefully as I think we’ll see what a lack of checks and balances will be like in the US the next few years) which could be implemented as part of using the system, but aren’t, leaves education in precarious situations.

The idea that the data locked in the LMS without the students being able to say, “I only want my data shared with my College” or “I only want my data shared with company X for the purposes of improving the system” shouldn’t be hard to implement. So why hasn’t it been done? Or, even talked about?

In my opinion, the data that gets harvested (anonymously of course) provides more important information to the company about how people use the system than the optics of having an opt-out button. It allows Blackboard to say how instructors use their system. We could talk about how terrifying this blog post is (instructor use is a proxy for how students use the system because LMSs give power to instructors to construct the student’s experience), or devoid of solid analysis. I’ll deal with the analysis later, so let’s just consider how this is entirely without context.  Blackboard hosted sites have been harvested (probably with the consent of the people who signed the contracts, not the instructors who actually create things on the system, or the students who engage in the system) by Blackboard to tell you how you teach. In one of the cited pieces, Blackboard says that they used this data to improve their notifications. If I put this through for ethics review, and said I’m going to look at notifications improvement and then released a post about how people used the whole system, it may very well be in their rights (and I suspect it is) but it is ethically murky. The fact they’ve released it to the public allows the public to ask these questions, but no one really has? Or if they have, I missed it.

The fact that Blackboard can do this (and I’m talking about Blackboard because they did it, but there’s a similar post from Canvas that’s making the rounds about discussion posts with video being more engaging or some such idea) without really clearing this with any client is chilling. It also constrains how we perceive we are able to use the LMS (it sets the standards for how it is used).

2 thoughts on “Why Can’t Students Opt-Out of Data Collection in Higher Ed?

  1. Pingback: 2016 week 47 in review – D’Arcy Norman dot net

  2. Your institution should have a litany of policies around student data handling, and hopefully, your student rights & responsibilities should have some indication to the student of what you as the institution use the data for. I know we aren’t explicit about how we use it, but we’re far better custodians of this data than the 3rd party tools that many students are forced to use as part of a textbook adoption (see Cengage’s EULA).

    While I agree that it would be desirable to have the kind of control and communication over data collection and use, the institution is not in the easiest place to make these directions. We are often responsible to DOE, DOJ, and other state entities with an ever-changing landscape of requirements (especially in Financial Aid), and several federal regulations on data handling (FERPA, HIPAA, etc.) Navigating these waters is complex, and I don’t think most higher ed institutions have the capacity (currently) for this kind of strategic thinking.

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